Tendrils of fog curled above the waters of eastern Maryland’s Black Bottom Branch. Just before our visit in late September, biting winds gusted out of the northwest, and a driving rain arrived later that week. But for one afternoon, the area held its breath, granting one last look at summer on a day that seemed suspended in time.
The creek flows through Millington Wildlife Management Area (WMA) on the Maryland-Delaware line, then into Cypress Branch and the Chester River. Ultimately, it winds to Chesapeake Bay, America’s largest estuary and a haven for waterfowl. The bay’s extensive aquatic vegetation and invertebrates lure in ducks from near and far.
The most beautiful duck
To see and photograph waterfowl on their fall migration, we were hunkered down in a hunting-turned-photography blind on the edge of a mucky Black Bottom Branch wetland. Millington WMA, a 4,000-acre parcel in eastern Kent County, is managed by Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to conserve wildlife populations and their habitats, says Josh Homyack, waterfowl project manager for the DNR. The stars of Millington’s wildlife show are Wood Ducks — the birds we were there to see.
The iridescent green crest and chestnut breast of a male Wood Duck, along with his scarlet eyes and beak, are unmistakable. The most beautiful duck on Earth, the bird has been called. Ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his 1923 Life Histories of North American Waterfowl, wrote: “What a beautiful creature is this Beau Brummell [a British fashion figure of the early 1800s] among birds and what an exquisite touch of color he adds to the scene.” Almost a century later, Greg Hoch echoed those sentiments in his 2020 book on the species, With Wings Extended: A Leap Into the Wood Duck’s World (University of Iowa Press). Hoch cites at least 30 references similar to Bent’s.
The Wood Duck is a strictly North American bird whose breeding range stretches from British Columbia south to California, and from Montana east to Nova Scotia and south to Texas and Florida. In the eastern U.S., the species usually winters from the Carolinas through Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. In the west, however, most Wood Ducks (75 percent) are non-migratory. Wood Ducks don their breeding plumage earlier than many other ducks, often in September, giving them a jump on the season ahead. In Maryland, according to Bill Harvey, Maryland DNR migratory bird program manager, some Wood Ducks return north and nest very early in spring.
Before they leave the Chesapeake in autumn, the birds often form large roosts, Homyack says. “In the weeks before migration, several hundred flock to the same location. These roosts are usually in undisturbed wetlands. In years when there’s abundant rainfall and the wetlands are filled with water, Millington WMA supports several Wood Duck roosts.”
Trees and water required
In spring, the ducks nest in tree cavities near water, which haven’t always been easy to find. In the late 1800s, Americans cleared timber, drained wetlands, and overhunted the species. By the early 1900s, Wood Ducks were believed to be on the brink of extinction. The account of the species from Cornell University’s Birds of the World notes, however, that “because of healthy populations in remote swamps, numbers were never as low as predicted.”
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protects the species from unregulated hunting, which helped populations recover. Habitat restoration and widespread nest box programs have also enabled the comeback.
“If you have wetlands here in Maryland, you likely have Wood Ducks somewhere in the vicinity,” says Donald Webster, waterfowl habitat manager for the Maryland DNR. According to Homyack, the duck’s populations along the Atlantic Flyway have held steady in recent decades.
Wood Ducks are also called summer ducks, squealers, woodies, swamp ducks, and acorn ducks, the latter for their fondness for the nuts. When they’re not paddling around woodland ponds and river swamps, the ducks spend their time in trees, Webster says. Their feet have sharp claws — an adaptation for perching on branches.
Graced with their presence
We were also perched — low and, we hoped, out of sight in the blind. Cautiously, we risked a glance into the wetland. Suddenly, the rising whistle of a male Wood Duck, jeeeeee, followed by the drawn-out squeal of a female, do weep do weep, broke the September stillness. A rosy, setting sun backlit the creek as the male glided into view around an island of knotweed. In little more than a month, says Webster, the ducks would be heading out of town. By early to mid-fall, most Chesapeake region Wood Ducks wing their way southward.
Then, Black Bottom Branch would lose a bit of its magic, until the day in mid-March when a certain rising whistle announces the arrival of spring.
Science journalist Cheryl Lyn Dybas and wildlife photographer Ilya Raskin ventured into Millington Wildlife Management Area under the auspices of Maryland Department of Natural Resources waterfowl biologists. They recently contributed to BirdWatching’s May/June 2020 issue with a feature on the Albany Pine Bush Preserve and its birds and butterflies.